Monday, June 1, 2020

Saving the World—For Whom?


There are numerous ways in which I try very hard to help save the world. Many of these ways have become habits I hardly think about. What are some of these ways, and why do I do them?

  • I try to keep myself healthy. I eat healthy, and I exercise—no fancy diets or exercises, just healthy food and hiking. Why? It might seem obvious: I want to be healthy. But there is another reason. If I get sick, the insurance companies and, ultimately, the taxpayers will have to foot part of the bill. Insurance premiums go up for everybody, not just for me, if I get sick a lot.
  • I am “environmentally responsible.” I drive a fuel-efficient car, I recycle almost everything, I do not waste energy and water. Why? Very little of it is for my own personal benefit, though I admit that I really, really like my Prius and enjoy paying less for gasoline. Most of my environmentally responsible actions, however, are for the good of society and the world.
  • I have also been responsible during the ongoing (yes, folks, it’s ongoing) pandemic by doing what I can to prevent the transmission of the virus. The benefit should seem obvious: I am less likely to get sick. But the major reason is that I am less likely to transmit the virus, even if I do not have symptoms.

In all three cases above, the major beneficiaries of my actions are other people. Not only are they other people, but they are people I cannot choose. When animals, including humans, are good to their offspring, their own fitness is enhanced. And when animals, including humans, are good to other animals from whom they expect goodness in return (evolutionary scientists call this direct reciprocity), they can specify who the recipients are. But the three cases above are examples of, at best, indirect reciprocity: at most, the only benefit that I can receive is a good reputation. All of you out there can admire me for practicing a healthy, environmentally conscious lifestyle. But actually, this doesn’t matter a whole lot to me. While I want you all out there to like me, I will never know whether most of you do or not. I will have no opportunity to cash in on the financial and material benefits of a good reputation. Therefore, the major reason I do these things is to help other people. I’m not bragging; so, I gave away an old waffle iron to Goodwill? How hard was that? Certainly not a sacrifice. Some poor person may benefit; I will never know whether this happens, or who benefits.

The purpose of this essay is to point out that there is something different about indirect reciprocity. And that is: the altruist cannot choose the recipients.

  • When I reduce my medical bills, thus reducing everyone’s insurance premiums, I cannot choose whose premiums will go down. I wish the premiums of only people who try to be healthy would decrease. But even if you are a smoker who sits in front of the television, you benefit, even if only a little, from my good health. You’re welcome.
  • When I reduce my environmental impact, I cannot choose who will benefit. I wish that my reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, my reduction of the overall use of pesticides (by buying from a farmer’s market when possible) would benefit only my fellow environmentalists. But those of you who drive big pickups around, spewing pollutants from a huge vertical tailpipe, and throw hundreds of thousands of pieces of garbage onto Oklahoma highways (I’ve made numerical estimates of how much), and who viscerally hate environmentalists like me will also benefit. You’re welcome.
  • When I do my part to reduce the spread of coronavirus, I wish that the only beneficiaries were others who, like me, restrain themselves from lurid contagious activities in public. But if you are one of those people who take your guns and occupy state capitols to protest against wearing face masks, people who hate responsible citizens such as myself, you will also benefit. You are also less likely to catch the virus, because of what I and people like me are doing. You’re welcome.

Oh, by the way, don’t try occupying federal land or state capitols unless you are white. Just sayin.’ Native Americans tried it in North Dakota a couple of years ago, and many black people are rioting right now in response to the death of...I think his name was George Floyd, but so many black people get killed by cops that I can’t keep them all straight. You have heard about the big riots, but there have been many peaceful protests, such as the one this past weekend in Tulsa. This, despite the fact that the majority of white cops are good people.



People like me, who use every opportunity to act against racism, contribute to a better society. Who benefits from this better society? Even people who hate everyone except their white buddies and who show us their guns will benefit from this better society. I wish I could round up all the racists and put them on a ranch in Nevada and let them shoot each other. But this will not happen. Even though I hate it when this happens, my good actions will benefit assholes. I wish I could snap my fingers and all the assholes would get beamed up to outer space and materialized inside a nebula, where they would burst open and their blood would spew out into the galaxies. But it doesn’t work this way. Once a good deed leaves my fingers, I lose all control over it. The good deed diffuses into the Giant Karma Machine only, unlike real karma, if there is any such thing, what goes around comes around to everybody.

And the same is true of all of you good people who are reading this, since assholes don’t read anything not written or spouted by other orange assholes, whether on certain networks, or in blogs, or via Facebook and Twitter. We all have to just get used to the fact that, by the laws of nature, all our good deeds will end up benefiting, if only a little, the people who least deserve any benefit from anybody. And all of us good people can collectively say, even to those who would rather die than thank us, you’re welcome.

I have one more essay about Loren Eiseley to post, but this essay is timely.

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